Impossible Foods can still sell its burger despite the F.D.A. findings, which did not conclude that soy leghemoglobin was unsafe. The company plans to resubmit its petition to the agency.
“The Impossible Burger is safe,” Rachel Konrad, a spokeswoman for Impossible Foods, said in a statement. “A key ingredient of the Impossible Burger — heme — is an ancient molecule found in every living organism.”
Impossible Foods is finding out what happens when a fast-moving venture capital business runs headlong into the staid world of government regulation.
Investors like Bill Gates and Khosla Ventures have poured money into a variety of so-called alt meat companies. Silicon Valley has noble goals, applying technological solutions to address major issues like climate change, farm animal welfare and food security.
But food is not an app. It is far more heavily regulated by governments and much more heavily freighted with cultural and emotional baggage.
“This rush to market is the Silicon Valley mind-set,” said Michael Hansen, a food safety expert who is the senior staff scientist at Consumers Union, an advocacy group. “They think because they’re doing something disruptive, the regulations that apply to other companies don’t apply to them.”
For now, few food start-ups are selling their products to consumers. Only Beyond Meat, which uses a traditional pea protein to make its Beyond Burger; Hampton Creek, which makes plant-based sandwich spreads and salad dressings; and Impossible Foods have any notable presence in the market.
Like Impossible Foods, Hampton Creek faced problems with the F.D.A., which challenged its use of the word “mayo” in the name of its vegan spread, Just Mayo. Federal definitions of foods require mayonnaise to contain eggs.
The agency ultimately allowed Hampton Creek to keep the name but required it to use bigger type on the front of the label to say it was egg-free. The label now defines “just” to mean “guided by reason, justice and fairness,” instead of suggesting that it is a replica of mayonnaise.
In the case of Impossible Foods, the debate centers on its use of soy leghemoglobin, which the company’s engineered yeast produces and forms an important ingredient behind the business.